I’ve learned so much from Laurie Schnebly Campbell over the years – and here’s a bit more to tuck into my brain – the Fatal Flaw. If you haven’t taken a writing class with Laurie, you don’t know what you’re missing out on!
How Fatal Should Flaws Be?
You already know the answer to that, right? We don’t want our characters dropping dead in Chapter Two because of some fatal flaw — unless one of them happens to be a murder victim who needs to die horribly for the sake of the plot.
In which case, it’s smart to give those minor characters (as well as any villains) some truly fatal flaw.
But we can’t stop there.
We need to give those exact SAME flaws to our MAIN characters…and then watch ’em struggle.
If that prospect delights you, skip the next few paragraphs. If you cringe at the thought of your beloved hero and heroine suffering, here’s some advice:
Make ’em Suffer
As pleasurable as it may be to envision perfect people whose lives are full of happiness, that doesn’t add up to a very compelling book. Most of us, just like most of our readers, know that life can be painful and difficult at times…and that every once in a while, we behave in some less-than-heroic way.
A character who wants to lose ten pounds but can’t resist the post-workout snack?
A character who knows there’s no reason to envy Older Brother but does so anyway? A character who lacks the self-confidence to speak up about some uncomfortable issue? We can relate to people like them.
So watching their fatal flaws (such as gluttony, or envy, or fear) get them in trouble confirms what we know about life. And that makes it all the more rewarding, all the more uplifting and thrilling and just plain satisfying, to see them overcome those traits in time to bring about their happy ending.
What Kind of Flaw?
Those of you who already know about Enneagram theory (ennea, pronounced ANY-uh, is the Greek word for nine) will remember how each personality type has its own unique strength…which, taken to excess, can also be a weakness.
For example, let’s use those three characters mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Someone dealing with the flaw of gluttony will have problems setting limits on whatever they enjoy, but will also be a fabulous entertainer and adventurer with friends who look forward to this person’s company.
Someone dealing with envy will notice tempting little details most people never see, which makes them better at creative pursuits, more passionate about life in general, and more aware of (and upset by) what they’re missing.
Someone dealing with fear will always know where to find the nearest fire extinguisher, and be great at keeping people on their side with humor in case they need help, yet have a hard time relaxing and enjoying the moment.
And so on.
How do these fatal flaws play into your story?
That’s the subject of a four-week class starting on Monday, but here’s the very short version.
Building Flawed Characters
We already know perfect people don’t make very good stories. That’s why Superman had to be geeky in his Clark Kent persona, so while we rooted for him to save the world we could also sympathize with him getting tongue-tied in front of the girl he loved.
That’s why a character who’s rich and gorgeous and smart and lovable also needs some hidden weakness, so we can reassure ourselves that way deep down this person isn’t all that different from us.
But if we take this character and say “hmm, okay, I’ll make my otherwise perfect hero afraid of snakes, and my otherwise perfect heroine worry too much about her hair” — you already know that won’t do the job, right?
Whatever keeps this person from being Less Than Ideal In Every Respect as of page 1 can’t just be a random vice that gets slapped onto ’em during the character assembly line. It has to be woven so deeply into their personality that readers take it for granted.
Random vs Realistic
Indiana Jones fearing snakes, for instance, was a cute gimmick. But it doesn’t give us anything to work with in terms of developing his character.
Fearing failure, though? That’s a whole different ballgame. That’s going to keep readers intrigued as this character goes through all kinds of gyrations trying to avoid failure — work around the clock, bargain, skip the contest altogether, cheat, charm or threaten voters, offer a treasure, seduce the judge, you name it.
And this is great because every ONE of those steps makes the plot even more exciting, more entertaining, more tumultuous. These aren’t just random events; they’re all stemming from the character’s flaw of fearing failure and the tied-in determination to succeed.
Which is a good trait in (for example) a woman struggling to win votes for women, or a sea captain determined to get his crew home safely, or a student who can’t leave home without a scholarship. We’ll root for people like those.
But we also want to see them suffer. And suffering which comes from the fatal flaw built right into their personality?
There’s nothing better than that.
So Here’s a Question for You
In a character you’re reading or writing about now, can you spot some heroic trait (which will also have a down-side, although you don’t need to mention it) OR some personality flaw which they’ll need to overcome?
Share that good or bad trait here, and if we get at least 30 such comments somebody will win free registration to “The Fatal Flaw That’ll Make Your Book Shine” as of tonight.
Laurie, glad my computer on the year’s first workday will have something fun to read!
Join us on Friday, January 3rd when Heather Webb presents Character Motivation Part Two—Discerning Motivation, Actions, and Goals.
Laurie Schnebly Campbell loves starting the new year with a brand new class, for people who’ve never heard of fatal flaws and for people who’ve read her book or taken her previous workshop on enneagrams. For details, see “The Fatal Flaw That’ll Make Your Book Shine” at groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/FatalFlaw/ Along with teaching new workshops every month and writing for an ad agency, she’s published half a dozen romances (including one that won “Best Special Edition of the Year” over Nora Roberts) plus a how-to for fiction writers on creating believable characters.
- Creating Your Hero’s Fatal Flaw
- How Fabulous is TOO Fabulous? by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
- CTW: His Personality Ladder by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
- His Personality Ladder by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
- Weekly Lecture Schedule for August 23-27, 2010: Edie Ramer, Laurie London, Tawny Weber & Laurie Schnebly Campbell